Blood trickled down from his head, like a boxer who just absorbed a right cross that cracked open a fresh wound. Bloodied, and maybe a little concussed, Luka Doncic played the finest game of his young career.
The stage was set in Dallas for a flashy bout of heavyweights: Friday night on ESPN featured the 6-9 220-pound Luka Doncic squaring off against the 6-8 260-pound freight train who also happened to be Doncic’s idol growing up, LeBron James. Basketball is a team sport, but it was clear that the draw here was the matchup between these two sizeable forwards.
And how appropriate for Doncic, that after a season in which he made a habit of dropping our jaws with his play and his numbers, his sophomore campaign’s true first test would come against the man whose game he most admired on his journey to the NBA. Against the man whose game is mirrored most closely in his own game. This was the stage he always wanted, to do battle with LeBron James. But he didn’t simply want to beat the master, he intended to go toe-to-toe in play style, play a LeBron James-esque basketball game. He wanted to ultimately show that he can not only impact the game like how James does, not only play the style of basketball that James does, but that he could do it better than James does.
And he was glorious. Up until the blood gushed, Doncic had logged 24 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists. His Mavericks were clinging to a one-point lead with about a minute left, and the game was shaping up to end in a knockout punch that he was eager to deliver. But asserting himself on a court filled with grown veterans would prove more difficult than youthful naiveté could prepare one for. He took a shot upstairs in the back of the head, and was reminded that in a league full of able-bodied foes, stripes are not simply earned, they are fought for. And he was intent to fight through for his.
When adversity hit, Doncic showed no quit. His laceration was a sign of depleted health, and in the late stages of the game it appeared to be advisable to stay seated. He was obviously uncomfortable, but when it looked like he had reached the point when most would stay on the chair, Doncic refused to throw in the towel that got redder and redder with every dab to his skull. The game was his to finish. It was too perfect not to be. In the biggest game of his young career, against his idol, a game in which he displayed his full arsenal of dazzling skill, the only choice imaginable was to cap off his legendary night.
And he didn’t disappoint. His biggest play in the fourth as the buzzer drew near was one that James knows all too well. Doncic drove hard to the rim, sucked in three defenders, then kicked it out to the open man for the corner three. Splash. Very King-like. Doncic’s deadly step-back three was falling all night, and in overtime, he had no fear to let in rain from deep. The pressure ramped up, but so did his play. This was his chance to beat the man.
But LeBron James is the man for a reason. And he showed why. With 39 points, 12 rebounds, and 15 assists, James finished with the best stat line of the night. Perhaps James knew what Doncic was up to. He certainly knows that the crown has many hands reaching for it. While James’ goal was to get the win ultimately, his jumper three over Doncic in overtime sent the not-so-subtle message that he’s still the premier jack-of-all-trades (and master of all) in the NBA. That Doncic’s time isn’t quite yet. Yet.
It will be though, eventually. While the torch isn’t ready to be passed along, this game made it clear whose hand is outstretched most eagerly for it. Friday night was the first time in NBA history that there were two 30-10-15 performances in a single game. Doncic is the youngest to ever record it with 31-13-15, James is the oldest. We thought it would be near impossible to see a talent like LeBron James ever again, he’s just so uniquely skilled. But on a night when he went full-LeBron James, someone else produced a stat line that if you covered their name on the sheet and only saw the numbers, you might assume that it was in fact LeBron James’ stats. Doncic is reaching for that torch.
We’d often commentate that Ben Simmons’ diverse skill set leaves him just a jump-shot away from being the next LeBron James. That Zion Williamson’s incredible strength as a teenager will lead him to be the next LeBron James. But the only truly accurate successor to that title is Luka Doncic. LeBron James is LeBron James because of his size, his ability to score with ease at the rim or the perimeter, his incredible court vision and pinpoint passing ability, and because the numbers bear out his production. All previous candidates who have been graced with such a comparison have a failing in at least one of those categories mentioned. But not Doncic. He checks all the boxes.
And Friday night was his night to prove it. He scored because his jumper is beautiful, he got assists not because he passes a lot but because he can see the court like few others and can deliver the ball with precision. He could finally show how he stacked up against his idol, and in the end he stacked up very well. Luka Doncic is coming. Blood and bruise can’t stop him. The league will be his someday. Someday.
For now though, James walked away with the belt still hanging over his shoulders.
Still, in the words of the King, Luka’s “a bad m****f*****!”